Can Saskatchewan fund non-Catholic students in Catholic schools? Raising government ire, a court says no.
A couple of weeks ago, in Good Spirit School Division No. 204 v Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212, 2017 SKQB 109, Saskatchewan’s Court of Queen’s Bench held that provincial funding for non-Catholic students of Catholic “separate” schools in the province was unconstitutional. Saskatchewan’s government is upset, and has proclaimed its intention to invoke the “notwithstanding clause” of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to nullify the effects of this decision. In this post, I will summarize the decision and briefly explain why I think it is correct. I will comment on the use of the Charter‘s override provision separately.
The constitution requires Saskatchewan to allow the formation of, and to provide equal funding for “separate” schools for Catholics and Protestants, whenever one of these two groups happens to be a minority in a given school district and if parents belonging to the minority group request it. The mechanics of this requirement are somewhat complex: section 17 of the Saskatchewan Act, 1905, which created the province from the North-West Territories, makes applicable to it a somewhat modified version of section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which guarantee “right[s] or privilege[s] with respect to separate schools which any class of persons ha[d in 1905]” under the then-existing territorial law. Laws enacted in furtherance of this guarantee are constitutional and not subject to scrutiny under the Charter, because its enactment did not abrogate the guarantee. Any other provincial laws relative to education, including the “separate” schools, are subject to Charter scrutiny like all other legislation in Canada.
The case was a challenge by a public school board to the funding received by a Catholic one for non-Catholic students attending one of its schools. If this funding were not available, the students would have attended a school operated by the plaintiff, and the funding would have followed them there. The case raised two main questions. Is the funding of non-Catholic students attending Catholic “separate” schools part of the guaranteed rights or privileges? If not, is it contrary to the Charter? There were a couple of preliminary issues too: whether the plaintiffs had standing to sue, and whether the school at the centre of the proceedings, St Theodore, was a legitimate “separate” school despite the fact that most of its students were not Catholic. Justice Layh answered both of these questions in the affirmative, and I will say no more of them. The decision is 230 pages long, not too much of it superfluous. I will only focus on the key points here.
Justice Layh found that there was no constitutionally guaranteed right for a “separate” Catholic school board to receive public funding for educating non-Catholic students. Only “denominational aspects” of the “separate” schools were constitutionally protected from legislative interference. The aim of the guarantee was to preserve minority religious communities by allowing them to withdraw their children from the majority’s schools and so to avoid assimilation. Moreover, at the time of the guarantee’s entrenchment, Catholics viewed education jointly with non-Catholics with great suspicions, and while constitutional interpretation had to account for new social realities ― notably the fact that Catholics and protestants were no longer the only religious groups of any significance in Canada, making special protections for them anomalies ― it could not import theological developments, such as Catholicism’s greater openness to other religions ― that occurred since the Saskatchewan Act came into force.
As a result, the ability to educate non-Catholics could not be viewed as a “denominational aspect” of the functioning of Catholic schools; it was not essential to their functioning as Catholic institutions. Therefore it was not constitutionally protected. Nor did the requirement of non-discriminatory funding for “separate” schools extend to funding students from outside the religious community for which they were set up. The funding requirement served to protect the distinctive religious character of the schools, not the ability of outsiders to attend them. In short, the provision of funding of which the plaintiffs complained was not a constitutional requirement, but a legislative choice of the province.
This area of the law is quite complicated, and I cannot claim particular expertise on it. To me, however, Justice Layh’s reasons are largely persuasive. It will not come as a surprise to regular readers that I am very skeptical about his take on the role of social change in constitutional interpretation, as I might further explain in a future post, if time permits. But I do not think that this is material here. Justice Layh makes a compelling case about the originalist raison d’être of the constitutional protections for “separate” schools being to allow minority communities to stand on their own, and about there being no legal right to funding for non-Catholic students in 1905. A purely originalist analysis would not, I think, yield conclusions different from his.
Having concluded that the funding of non-Catholic students was not exempt from Charter scrutiny, Justice Layh turned to the plaintiff’s claims that it infringed the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and equality. Part of the respondents’ case on this point was that the plaintiff, not being a natural person, was not entitled to make such claims, since only individuals could hold religious beliefs or claim equality rights under section 15 of the Charter. Justice Layh dismissed this argument. In his view, although only an individual could claim that a generally neutral law had a disproportionate or discriminatory effect on him or her, anyone could argue that a legislative measure was unconstitutional on its face, as the plaintiff here was doing. I find this distinction dubious; once the plaintiff is granted standing to sue in the public interest, shouldn’t it be able to advance constitutional claims on behalf of others? Isn’t that the point of public interest standing? But nothing turns on this here.
Justice Layh found that funding non-Catholic students in Catholic schools ― and, importantly, not funding, say, non-Muslim students in Muslim schools or non-Jewish students in Jewish schools ― amounted a breach of the state’s duty of religious neutrality and to discrimination on the basis of religion. Neutrality means treating all religious groups equally, as well as not favouring religion over non-religion or vice versa. Providing money to Catholic schools so that they can educate non-Catholics, instructing them in Catholicism and thus “evangelizing” them, as well as creating goodwill in the community, without providing equivalent opportunities to other religious groups is not acting impartially, and is thus a breach of the Charter‘s religious freedom guarantee as explained, notably in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16,  2 S.C.R. 3 (which I explained and discussed here). It is also, ipso facto, discriminatory. I think this is correct, and quite obviously so. There is no meaningful account of religious neutrality on which singling out one group for a favourable treatment denied others is permissible.
There remained the question of a possible justification of these infringements of Charter rights under section 1, as limitations “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. Justice Layh found that no such demonstration had been carried out. Indeed, the provincial government had not even really attempted one. The defendant school division, for its part, argued that funding Catholic schools for students outside of their faith served to provide educational opportunities to all students, and choice to the parents. Justice Layh rejected these objectives, on the basis that they had nothing to do with the limitation of funding of non-denominational students (if I can be forgive this use of the term) to Catholic schools. Public schools could provide educational opportunities, while the objective of enhancing choice could not be advanced by an inherently discriminatory policy. While these objections seem to me to go to the “rational connection” stage of the section 1 test rather than to invalidate the objectives themselves, nothing turns on this. The objections themselves are well taken, and Justice Layh’s conclusion, correct.
In the result, Justice Layh declares that Saskatchewan’s legislative and regulatory provisions allowing funding of non-Catholic students in Catholic “separate” schools is unconstitutional. He adds that “[a]ppreciating that the implementation of this declaration will cause significant repercussions in the province, this declaration is stayed until June 30, 2018.”  The stay, I think, is self-evidently appropriate here, and this case should be kept in mind in any future discussions of suspended declarations of unconstitutionality.
As it works its way up the judicial hierarchy, Good Spirit School Division could also produce important rulings on the constitutional issues it addresses ― and I hope that appellate courts will pay attention to Justice Layh’s reasons, which strike me ― despite some reservations ― as generally very careful, well-argued, and perhaps above all lucid. But all of that is likely to be overshadowed by debates about the Saskatchewan government’s invocation of the “notwithstanding clause” to annul Justice Layh’s decision. I hope to say more on that in short order.